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The Syrian debate

Wednesday 2nd December 2015 is a date worth remembering. The House of Commons voted 309 to 211 to authorise air strikes against Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. The debate preceding the vote lasted 10.5 hours and the Government majority of 179 was achieved because 66 Labour MPs voted with the Government as did the Liberal Democrats and Democratic Unionists

The House heard some of the finest speeches they are likely to hear in this Parliament. Most came from senior Labour members who voted with the Government including the Shadow Foreign Secretary, the party’s deputy leader, and seven other members of the shadow cabinet.

Initiating the debate, the Prime Minister addressed seven questions. The first question was: could air strikes increase the risk of attacks in the UK? He argued the Paris killings were not the result of French attacks because these did not start until after those terrorist acts, which were motivated by jihadist hatred of ‘infidels’. Seven similar terrorist acts in Britain had already been prevented by our security services.

The second question was, would British air strikes make any difference? The PM said we had made a big difference in Iraq and as Daesh does not recognise the border neither should we.  Our allies wanted us to join them because the RAF has the Brimstone missile that they lack which will minimise collateral damage to civilians. He admitted that troops on the ground will be needed but they should be from the Muslim nations of the Middle East. He recognised military measures as one strand of a wider approach, including talks to end the Syrian civil war in, replace President Assad with a popularly elected government and a new constitution. Post conflict reconstruction would be essential to avoid the mistakes made in Libya and £1 billion had been allocated for this. We are also the second biggest donor for humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees.

Jeremy Corbyn was unimpressed. He admitted that ISIL is a threat to the UK but the strikes will only increase the threat. He dismissed the UN declaration as an inadequate legal basis for the strikes and advocated concentrating on starving ISIL of funds and weapons and peace-making. His Shadow Foreign Secretary disagreed, describing ISIL as fascists. The Labour Party has always taken an internationalist stance, with an opposition to fascism, and, was now being asked by the socialist President Hollande, to join the French in confronting the evil Daesh. Alan Johnson, who has held many senior Ministerial roles in Labour governments, asked important ethical questions. ‘Is it a just cause? Is the proposed action a last resort? Is it proportionate? Does it have a reasonable prospect of success? Does it have broad regional support? Does it have a clear legal base? I think that it meets all those criteria.’

Those are the right questions even if we disagree with his conclusion. However, the large majority in the Commons authorises the strikes and the first sortie has flown. Our responsibility now is to pray for the safety of our flyers and that of innocent civilians. It is also to pray that the Vienna talks lead to the end of the Syrian civil war and we do all we can for the refugees.